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Trails Landscapes Las Vegas

A hot hike to Hoover Dam–and a look back at “the NEW Las Vegas”

Hoover Dam, 1941. Photo by Ansel Adams. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

 

The large digital thermometer at the trailhead parking lot registered 91 degrees as Nan and I began our mid-day, mid-April, round-trip walk along the roughly 4-mile Historic Railroad Trail, which follows an abandoned railbed from the Lake Mead Visitors Center to Hoover Dam. We had expected somewhat more moderate temperatures at this time of year. But southern Nevada can be torrid terrain. At an open gate about a quarter mile along our walk, a sign informed us that the trail is closed from June through September due to dangerously high temperatures.

For us lifelong New Englanders, though, who had just arrived in Las Vegas, 25 miles or so to the northwest, the dry, sunny weather was welcome. A light, steady breeze moderated the temperature somewhat. We proceeded cautiously, reminding each other of our surprising (to us) ages, our respective medical constraints, and the need for vigilant hydration. The flat, graded, multi-use trail was busy, though not crowded, with walkers, runners, and bikers. We would not be alone.

The Historic Railroad Trail is just one modest component of the extensive federal-government role and presence in Nevada. (In fact, about 80 percent of Nevada’s land is federally owned, the highest percentage of any of the 50 states.) The trail (also sometimes described as the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail) was created and is maintained by the National Park Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior, as part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (LMNRA). As designated in 1964, “America’s First National Recreation Area,” in the Park Service’s words, comprises “1.5 million acres of mountains, canyons, valleys and two vast lakes” in Nevada and Arizona along the Colorado River. 

The Historic Railroad Trail parallels the road depicted between the Alan Bible Visitor Center and Hoover Dam below Boulder Basin in the top-left corner of this map of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. (From “Balancing the Mandates: An Administrative History of Lake Mead National Recreation Area,” by Hal K. Rothman and Daniel J. Holder, United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, June 2002)

The legal status and management of federally owned lands creates a confusing maze of official designations, acronyms, and government agencies comprehensible to only the most obsessive of policy wonks, scholars, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and activists. As just one example, here’s how the Department of the Interior explains the difference between National Parks and National Recreation Areas:

National parks tend to be large swaths of land that protect a variety of resources, including natural and historic features. National parks can only be created by Congress — our first national park was Yellowstone — and are managed by the National Park Service. National parks strive to keep landscapes unimpaired for future generations while offering recreation opportunities. . . .

In total, the National Park System has 28 different types of designations, but they’re all considered national parks no matter the name.

National recreation areas are lands near large reservoirs that offer visitors a chance to experience water-based outdoor activities — from swimming and kayaking to fishing and boating. These recreation areas also often include important natural and cultural features. The U.S. has a total of 40 national recreation areas, which are managed either by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, and five of these are near urban areas — providing great opportunities for Americans to connect to nature near them.

Transforming landscapes: natural, political, economic, cultural

The Historic Railroad Trail and the LMNRA are both byproducts of one of the largest and most significant public-works projects ever initiated by the federal government: creation of Hoover Dam during a relatively few years in the 1930s.

Though relatively short, the trail traverses dramatic natural and geologic terrain along the route to its destination overlooking the western, Nevada side of the dam. As its name suggests, though, the trail, with tersely informational signage along the way, also leads the walker through a vivid cultural and historical story. A sign titled “A Network of Railroads” along the trail’s first stretch explains its origins:

You are walking along just one segment of a 30-mile network of railroads built in 1931 specifically to haul materials to construct Hoover Dam. This line, the U.S. Government Railroad, ran from Boulder City down Hemenway Wash to a concrete mixing plant on the rim of Black Canyon. Trains ran 24 hours a day carrying gravel, supplies and machinery to the dam construction site.

The Boulder Canyon Project Act, which took effect only months before the stock market crash of October 1929 and the cataclysmic Great Depression that ensued, dramatically transformed the region—particularly the area encompassing the site of the Hoover Dam and the nearby town of Las Vegas.

The National Archives provides a concise summary of the complicated circumstances and history leading to the December 21, 1928 enactment of the federal law authorizing construction of Hoover Dam:

Long before there was a Boulder Canyon Act or a Hoover Dam, the Colorado River flowed uninterrupted along its 1,450-mile course from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. Winding through California’s richly fertile Imperial Valley, the Colorado River was unpredictable–flooding in the spring, drying up in the summer. The destruction caused when the river flooded in the spring had devastated the farmlands near its banks. By the 1920s, the damage attracted so much attention that it had become necessary and politically expedient to try to control the path of the lower Colorado. The only way to harness this indispensable resource was to build a dam, which in turn would provide badly needed electricity to the western states.

The Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928 authorized construction of a dam in Boulder, or Black, Canyon, construction of the All-American Canal to connect the Imperial and Coachella Valleys with the Colorado River and divided the lower basin waters among the lower basin states. In addition, the act appropriated $165,000,000 for construction and stated the primary purposes of the project as flood control, improvement of navigation on the Colorado River, storage and delivery of water for reclamation and other beneficial uses, and generation of power. The Boulder Canyon Project Act became effective on June 25, 1929, following ratification of the Colorado River Compact by six of the seven states of the Colorado River Basin. [NOTE: Those seven states are: (Upper Basin) Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming; (Lower Basin) Nevada, Arizona, and California.]

Map of Colorado River Basin, depicting the location of the Hoover (“Boulder, or Black, Canyon”) Dam and All-American Canal authorized by the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act. The Glen Canyon Dam, upstream of Lees Ferry, was completed in the mid-1960s. (U.S. Geological Survey)

In 1941, five years after Hoover Dam’s completion, the era’s eminent photographer of America’s western landscapes, Ansel Adams, captured how the massive yet gracefully designed dam had been slotted into a gnarly, narrow passage of the Colorado River called Black Canyon. As the title of the 1928 law suggested, an earlier plan had anticipated building the structure almost 20 miles further upstream at Boulder Canyon, now submerged under Lake Mead. The law had in fact authorized a dam “at Black Canyon or Boulder Canyon.” Geological and engineering analysis favored the downstream site.

Adams’s photograph illustrates some of the engineering and construction challenges presented by the dam site’s geology. The image doesn’t entirely capture the location’s isolation and difficult means of access, however, especially at the time of the dam’s construction. Developing the infrastructure to transport immense quantities of manpower, building materials, and machinery was itself a large and expensive endeavor. Thus, a series of linked railways were built connecting Las Vegas, 25 or 30 miles to the northwest, to the Black Canyon damsite. In 1930, Las Vegas’s population was 5,165. Only 30 years earlier, in 1900, federal census enumerators had counted 30 residents at “Las Vegas Precinct,” which consisted of a few ranches and a handful of Southern Paiute Indians settled near the abundant springs suggested by its Spanish name, translated as “the Meadows.” Las Vegas as a settled town had sprung to life almost overnight in early 1905 as a midpoint and watering station for the new San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad (SP, LA & SL) completed that year. This new link in the nation’s railroad network connected an isolated region of the intermountain west to growing southern California and a Pacific Ocean port. 

An initial and necessary element of the dam project was the creation of a spur rail line from the main line (by then owned by the Union Pacific Railroad) at Las Vegas to the planned new community, Boulder City, a town built and administered by the federal government to provide for the flood of workers seeking employment at the project. Work began on this rail link in September 1930; by February of 1931 service began from Las Vegas to Boulder City. (A section of this Boulder City line survives as a tourist railroad and the site of the Nevada State Railroad Museum.) From there, work quickly began on a 10-mile rail line, the United States Government Railroad, to carry building materials and machinery to the canyon-confined, riverside dam site; its terminus was the “Himix” concrete plant perched on the canyon rim. This route required burrowing five tunnels—300-feet-long, 25-feet wide, and 30-feet high—through the mountains that plunged steeply to the Colorado River. The U.S. Government Railroad was completed in a mere five months in 1931. Once it was in place, work on the dam itself began in earnest. 

* * *

Two of the five tunnels along the trail route. (National Park Service)

The route of these last miles of the U.S. Government Railroad to Hoover Dam survives today as the Historic Railroad Trail. The tracks were dismantled in 1962, a first section of the trail was opened in 1992, and the final section to Hoover Dam created in 2007. In 2015, it was designated a National Recreation Trail as part of the National Trails System. The Park Service trail website classifies the hiking experience as “easy.” In fact, its origin and construction as a railroad bed is captured in the statistic NPS provides for the elevation change—11 feet—over the course of what it lists as a 3.7-mile trail.

Nan and I monitored each other’s pace, condition, and water intake as we made our way along the trail. The dramatically changing hues and varying formations of the mountains within view disclose a complex geological history spanning 1.5-billion years, according to the NPS. The tunnel’s themselves, grouped in close sequence about halfway along the trail’s length, brought shade and cooling respite, channeling the breeze in our faces. The expanse of Lake Mead’s Boulder Basin, just one arm of the vast manmade water body, was revealed from different perspectives as the trail, tunnel by tunnel, twisted around and through a mountain.

This map from the 2023 version of the National Park Service’s brochure for the Lake Mead National Recreational Area depicts the decline of Lake Mead’s surface level from its designed maximum operational level at 1219 feet above mean sea level (darker brown to the left) to 1050 feet, roughly its level in recent years. The formerly submerged area is represented in lighter brown to the right. The Historic Railroad Trail, part of which appears as a green dotted line at the bottom of the map, offers numerous views of this area. (National Park Service)

As we walked, the uniform “bathtub ring” of chalky mineral deposits surrounding shores and islands starkly displayed Lake Mead’s decreasing level and shrinking surface area. As of May 28, 2024, the water level of the lake was measured at 1,067.94 feet above mean sea level. As Lake Mead, a human-built reservoir, slowly filled after Hoover Dam was completed in 1935, it reflected a design conceived by hydrologists and engineers to meet precisely defined spatial and operational benchmarks.

A detailed paper, “Storage Capacity of Lake Mead,” available at the LMNRA website, provides the specialized vocabulary, techniques, and statistics the dam’s operating agency, the Bureau of Recreation (BOR), employs in managing Hoover Dam and regulating the flow of the Colorado River, from its northernmost headwaters in Wyoming to the Mexican border. “There is considerable confusion concerning some key morphometric and hydrologic characteristics of Lake Mead,” another thorough, somewhat dated (c. 2010) NPS report, “Overview of Lake Mead,” attempts to explain.

The Colorado River system throughout most of its ancient and ever-evolving existence has been a natural landscape, untouched by human influence. Today’s “Colorado River Basin” is a human-conceived concept, little over a century old, which attempts to impose control over that landscape. For all our human efforts, the Colorado River region remains dynamic terrain, resistant to fixed numerical constraint. For us non-specialists, though, the results of some of the engineers’ assumptions and calculations—such as the “bathtub ring”—can be read clearly on the landscape itself.

Table of Lake Mead Operational Levels from National Park Service webpage titled “Storage Capacity of Lake Mead,” last updated December 22, 2022. (https://www.nps.gov/lake/learn/nature/storage-capacity-of-lake-mead.htm)
Lake Mead Marina in the lake’s Boulder Basin, just upstream of Hoover Dam. The “bathtub ring” delineating Lake Mead’s former level is visible along the lake’s shoreline and surrounding the islands in the lake.

The standard benchmark (some sources and explanations differ slightly) for maintaining the designed “full pool” operational capacity of this engineered hydrological system is a lake-level elevation of 1219 feet above mean sea level. BOR managers, recreational users, politicians, and bureaucrats throughout the seven-state Colorado River Basin monitor Lake Mead’s level like the temperature of a feverish infant. The May 28 BOR lake-level measurement of 1067.94 is about 150 feet below the lake’s full pool benchmark. At its current level, Lake Mead’s water capacity is 35 percent of full-pool capacity. 

The BOR publishes detailed historical data documenting Lake Mead’s high and low water levels, month by month, year by year, beginning in 1935. Not until 1941, six years after the dam’s completion, did the lake reach “full pool” level. Winter snowpack, precipitation, evaporation, sedimentation, and water withdrawals affect the lake’s level, as well as its hydroelectric output. Both remained relatively stable and manageable for decades. The lake’s level dropped after the 1963 completion of Glen Canyon Dam further upstream, as another reservoir, Lake Powell, filled. By 1983, Lake Mead’s level had reached its all-time high, 1,225 feet, at which time Hoover Dam’s managers for the first time opened the dam’s spillways.

Beginning in 1999, though, Lake Mead’s water level has, until very recently, been in steady, steep decline, the result of population growth throughout the region, increased demand for water and electricity, and, not least important, the onset of a regional “Millenial Drought” that persisted for several decades. In July, 2022, the lake’s elevation reached 1,040 feet, its lowest level since 1937.

At that time, the declining level and capacity of Lake Mead, as well as those of Lake Powell upstream, set off alarms with federal officials about the capacity to maintain power generation at Hoover and Glen Canyon dams and to provide water for agricultural irrigation and human consumption throughout the states comprising the Colorado River Compact, as well as for water allocations to which Mexico and U.S. Native American tribes are legally entitled.  The Bureau of Reclamation urged the states to come up with a plan for severe reductions in water use in order to maintain reservoir levels.

The states of California, Arizona, and Nevada by May, 2023, given a modest reprieve by heavy snowfall and rainfall the previous winter, reached an agreement to cut their states’ water use by “at least 3 million acre-feet of water through 2026.” But all the Compact River Compact states, and the various water-using constituencies throughout the region, are still scrambling and negotiating to develop an agreement for new water allocation guidelines when the current agreement expires in 2026.

* * *

Bureaucratic boundaries

As the trail leaves the last of the five tunnels along the way eastward, its character changes somewhat abruptly, at a boundary marking different bureaucratic responsibilities and functional uses. The jurisdiction of the landscape traversed by the trail hands off from the Park Service to the Bureau of Reclamation at a gate and sign next to a shaded rest stop and water fountain, where we stopped for lunch and recuperation. The Bureau of Reclamation, also an agency within the Department of the Interior, was created in 1902 to oversee the development and management of federal water resources, including dams, canals, and other irrigation infrastructure throughout America’s western states. (The National Park Service was created in 1916.)

A boundary between the property along the trail under the jurisdiction of, respectively, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation is marked by a sign and gate, located at the point marked “You Are Here” on the map below.  A gazebo, a corner of which is visible on the right edge of this photo, provides shade and a water fountain for hikers.

The trail, though still easy to walk, now took on a grittier aspect. The BOR is eager to show the work—a combination of brute force and state-of-the-art engineering and technology—that created the dam and maintains its key purpose as source of hydropower-generated electricity for the region.

Passing the “Property Boundary” sign into the BOR’s domain, the trail, parts of which also serve as service roads, parallels a large steel building and sprawling storage facility, full of machinery, pipes, and other materials. The site, another sign explains, served as the location during the dam’s construction for a factory built by the Babcock & Wilcox Company to manufacture the large-diameter steel pipes—as much as 30-feet across—used in the dam’s construction. As the company explained in a 1933 booklet, Hoover Dam, describing its role in the project:

As the diameters of most of this piping are too great to permit shipment by railroads, it will be necessary to build a fabricating plant on the rocky slopes above the Canyon, about one mile from the site of the dam. The plant equipment will include, among other machinery, a plate-bending roll which, for its width, will be heavier and more powerful than any made to date, a stress-relieving furnace of sufficient size to accommodate the 30-foot diameter pipe sections, and a complete laboratory for testing weld specimens.

A Babcock & Wilcox Company steel plant built in the 1930s specifically to manufacture large sections of pipe for Hoover Dam is now a Bureau of Reclamation storage and maintenance facility. The route of the current trail runs immediately adjacent to this site, from roughly the perspective of this postcard photograph.

Further along, we passed beside a complex metal webwork comprising a power-transmission station and powerline towers and pylons that send electricity along its way to Las Vegas, southern California, and Arizona. We then walked through a “boneyard” of old or stored dam components, set out for display in the desert air.

Finally, at the trail’s eastern terminus, expending more energy than our walk had yet demanded, we climbed up and down several flights of stairs of the parking garage overlooking the dam, the top deck of which provided tightly framed perspectives of the dam’s downstream face and the soaring Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge that carries traffic high over the Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona.

 

Overlooking the downstream side of Hoover Dam from the top story of the adjacent parking garage.
The Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, 1,500 feet downstream from Hoover Dam, spans the Colorado River between the states of Arizona and Nevada along Interstate 11 and U.S. Route 93. The bridge opened in 2010. Previously, vehicles crossed the river along the former route of US 93 atop Hoover Dam. The bridge, Wikipedia explains, was named for “Mike O’Callaghan, Governor of Nevada from 1971 to 1979, and Pat Tillman, an American football player who left his career with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the United States Army and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 by friendly fire.”
Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, view from the Arizona side showing the penstock towers, the Nevada-side spillway entrance and the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, also known as the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge. The Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail terminates in the notch between two hills just above the dam and in front of the transmission towers in the background.  (Photo by Kuczora; CC BY 3.0 DEED Attribution 3.0 Unported)

* * *

Ragtown

On our return, we stopped at an informational sign, titled “Hard Times in the Desert,” overlooking the current shoreline of Lake Mead, in the vicinity of a scruffy settlement, “Ragtown,” or Williamsville, which had quickly grown up in the early 1930s. Many dam workers and their families lived here during the early period of the project’s construction before housing became available at Boulder City. 

“If you had stood here in the early 1930s, you would have looked down on the wooden cabins, tattered tents, and cardboard dwellings of Ragtown,” the sign text reads. “Makeshift structures housed hundreds of families that came here during the Depression for work on Hoover Dam. Conditions were primitive: outhouses, no running water, and no electricity. While husbands were at work, wives and children dealt with summer heat and winter cold. They hauled water from the river, washed their clothes, and hung them out to dry on mesquite bushes.”

The small crescent of Lake Mead shoreline visible just above this Historic Railroad Trail informational sign once encompassed a portion of the tent city, “Ragtown,” that sprung up in the early 1930s as a temporary settlement for workers and their families at the nearby Hoover Dam worksite. This area was submerged before the gradual and dramatic decrease in Lake Mead’s water level beginning more than 20 years ago.
A view from the Historic Railroad Trail, looking northward, depicting the area of Lake Mead shoreline that was the site of “Ragtown” in the early 1930s. Again, much of the sloping shoreline plain visible beyond the mountain crags in the foreground had been submerged for many decades after the construction of Hoover Dam.
A photograph of “Ragtown” in the early 1930s, taken from a perspective closer to and at a lower elevation than the 2024 photograph above taken from the Historic Railroad Trail. (UNLV Special Collections and Archives)
Women and Children at “Ragtown,” or Williamsville, near Hoover Dam, early 1930s. (National Park Service)

* * *

In search of Uncle Sam: “Too many crooks coming to Las Vegas, now they’re going to build Boulder Dam.”

As noted, construction of the U.S. Government Railroad took place during early 1931. My great-uncle Sam Gay in January of that year finished his final term as sheriff of Nevada’s vast Clark County, of which Las Vegas is county seat. In October 1930, as his twenty-year tenure in that position wound down, he sat for an interview with Dan Mainwaring, a reporter for the Illustrated Daily News, a Los Angeles newspaper. Sam described how much life and the law had changed in his sprawling jurisdiction since he’d first arrived in Las Vegas in the spring of 1905.

“Too many crooks coming to Las Vegas, now they’re going to build Boulder Dam,” the sheriff told Mainwaring. “I’ve dealt with honest men so long, I wouldn’t know how to act around crooks. I’m used to tough hombres who shot each other up once in a while. I’m used to gun fights. But I ain’t much good running down racketeers. My notions is too old-fashioned. You can’t deal with these new gunmen with a single action 45. Need a machine gun. I’m too old to learn to run one, so I quit.”

Sam Gay, at right, next to Jim McIntosh, owner of the Arizona Club on 1st Street in Las Vegas’s Block 16. This is the first version of the Arizona Club, which became the most popular and notorious saloon, gambling venue, and, eventually, brothel on Block 16. This photo was likely taken in 1905 or 1906. (UNLV Special Collections and Archives)

Sam Gay had first arrived in Las Vegas in early 1905, just before the May 15 auction of lots at the Las Vegas Townsite owned and developed by the recently built San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad. Like a lot of western boomtowns, the little settlement in the desert, the population of which numbered just over 30 people in the 1900 federal census, attracted many fortune-hunters looking for new opportunities. At 45, having lived in San Diego for almost two decades, Sam, a bachelor, was not a young man by the standard of the time. But he found his place and his career in Las Vegas. He started out as a bouncer at the Arizona Club, the best-known and most popular of the saloons, gambling halls, and brothels in the town’s Block 16. Before long he was elected town constable, then appointed deputy sheriff, before winning election as sheriff of the newly created Clark County in 1910, which comprised Nevada’s sparsely settled southernmost terrain, including the rugged canyons and mountains bordering the Colorado River north and south of the Black Canyon damsite.

Sam Gay (second from right, wearing vest with watch chain), Sheriff of Clark County, Nevada, on the steps of the county courthouse in Las Vegas, with deputy sheriffs (left to right) Tony Marteletti, R.G. McCubrey, and Joe Keate, his successor in 1931. This photo was taken during Sam’s last years as sheriff, some time in 1929 or 1930.

Las Vegas’s official population in 1930 totaled 5,165 residents. But possibly two or three times as many hard-pressed Americans, by various accounts, arrived in the city that year to prospect for a job on the dam, the largest public works project yet initiated by the federal government. Few found work, though, at least at first. Construction of the dam would not begin until the spring of 1931. Some of the job-seekers showed up at the Clark County Courthouse, looking for help.

Sheriff Gay responded by converting his office into an impromptu pawn shop. Reporter Dan Mainwaring noted the pile of suitcases, clothes, musical instruments, and other random paraphernalia Sam Gay had accumulated. The modest charity Sam Gay provided from his office was not the only help Las Vegas’s officials and leading citizens offered to the onslaught of newcomers. “Las Vegas had the longest breadline in the U.S. according to population,” claimed local businessman Robert M. Griffin, who headed the relief effort for the local branch of the Salvation Army. Of the 10,000 people requesting aid that October, Griffin reported, the Salvation Army had assisted some 7,000.

“A pallid youth came up to the counter and laid down an army overcoat,” as Mainwaring recorded the scene in the sheriff’s office.

“I haven’t eaten in a couple of days,” the young man claimed. “I don’t want to go down to the gambling joints and bum a meal. Could you loan me four bits on the coat?” Sam handed over a dollar bill and threw the coat onto the pile.

“Maybe he stole it,” the skeptical reporter said to the sheriff.

“Maybe he did,” Sam replied. “What of it. Ain’t you ever been hungry? But he didn’t. I know men.”

Mainwaring was recording the melancholy epitaph of a man who knew that the times had caught up with him and were about to pass him by. No one who had lived in Las Vegas for long would dispute Sam Gay’s estimation of his own abilities as a judge of human character and behavior. What men needed most, Sam had come to learn, aside from a square meal, was a measure of dignity. Opening one of the suitcases in his office, he showed Mainwaring the tattered shirts he had acquired.

“I got five bucks tied up in that,” he told the reporter. “Ain’t worth a dollar. None of this stuff is worth much. But they need money. They don’t want to beg. Makes them feel like they had some manhood left when they give something for the money. So I take the junk. Hell, I don’t want it. And most of them come back. It’s my only way of helping them, now that prohibition drove all the good liquor out of the state.”

* * *

Among the other journalists who arrived in Las Vegas in the footsteps of tabloid columnist Dan Mainwaring was a writer for a journal of considerably different style and tenor than the Illustrated Daily News. To Edmund Wilson, Las Vegas appeared out of the desert like a mundane and disappointing mirage—a “low flimsy white town with greenery,” as he recorded in his journal upon arriving in the summer of 1931. The “silver Standard Oil tanks with sky-blue band around bottom, harmonized, as if by intention, with the blue sky and white hard distinct clouds.” The town sat in the midst of a broad basin surrounded by “[b]razen mountains full of silver, iron, gold, aluminum, Aztec turquoise, sulphur, that looked as if they would ring if you hit them with a hammer.” On assignment for The New Republic, the weekly tribune of liberal causes, Wilson was ranging across the country in those tense Depression days, producing the body of trenchant, evocative reportage later collected in his books American Jitters and The American Earthquake.

Edmund Wilson. (Photo by Ben Pinchot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve sometimes wondered what Sam Gay, then retired, might have related to Wilson had the urbane eastern journalist encountered him on the bench at Second and Fremont Streets in downtown Las Vegas from which the sheriff had monitored goings-on in the heart of his bailiwick. But Sam, now at his leisure, had set out that summer on a circuit of parts of the United States and Canada, to visit his siblings in Vancouver, Prince Edward Island (their common birthplace), and Massachusetts, where my own grandmother then lived.

In any event, when Wilson stepped off the train at the Union Pacific station at the west end of Las Vegas’s Fremont Street, one of the first things he noticed was the army of unemployed men, dressed in what appeared to be a standard uniform of “blue overalls and khaki shirts,” camped on the depot’s lawn. “The open space in front of the station is so full of sleeping men at night that it looks like a battlefield,” he reported. If Wilson had encountered the recently retired sheriff, he might have heard stories as pungent and pathetic as those Sam had related to Dan Mainwaring.

“Las Vegas at one time became so thronged with wanderers looking for work that the town had to have them deported,” Wilson wrote of the situation that had unfolded a few months before his arrival. The deportation of those hard-luck American nomads was not among the duties Sam Gay had been willing to carry out during his last days as sheriff. He was glad to leave such unsavory tasks to his law-enforcement contemporary and frequent rival, Perry Nash, chief of police for the City of Las Vegas. Nash, earlier that year, had shipped an average of 100 men out of town each week. He had resisted pressure from some Chamber of Commerce members to establish a chain gang to discourage newcomers. His jail was already full, Nash complained, and his budget to feed prisoners was exhausted.

Wilson explained to his readers the grim, seemingly inexorable dynamic of industrial relations that was beginning to play out as work on Boulder Dam gained pace. “A limitless supply of labor has been pouring into Las Vegas as a result of the dam,” he reported. The private consortium—the Six Companies—which had been awarded the contract for the dam had soon attracted the attentions of the notorious if rarely effective Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies were eager to organize workers in protest against the harsh working conditions at the dust-congested, blast-furnace-hot site at the bottom of Black Canyon. “If the men of the present crew wouldn’t work on their jobs for the lowest pay,” Wilson continued, “there were plenty of others eager to get them.” As matters evolved, the Six Companies, with the tacit support of the federal government, easily and harshly thwarted the IWW’s agitation at the dam site.

Six months after passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act, Las Vegas boosters, businessmen, unions, and organization (including the city’s Elks lodge to which Sam Gay belonged) built an arch across Fremont Street, opposite the Union Pacific station, emblazoned with the legend, “Welcome to Las Vegas, The Gateway to Boulder Dam.” 

Painters had worked through the night, the Las Vegas Evening Review reported in its Saturday, June 22, 1929 edition, to put the finishing touches on the archway in anticipation of the arrival that morning of two high-ranking federal officials responsible for making key decisions about a staging area and headquarters for the dam project. Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur was expected to arrive at the Union Pacific station from the west, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Elwood Mead from the east. The Las Vegas welcoming party was eager to portray in the best possible light what the Evening Review described in a front-page editorial as “the NEW Las Vegas.”

“Streets had been swept during the night; banners had been hung throughout the city for the past week, yards had been cleaned,” the newspaper declared, “so that Las Vegas might offer not only the hospitality for which she is justly noted but a neatness and beauty commensurate.”

Meanwhile, a more discreet message was being sent by town fathers and law enforcement to the owners of the bars and brothels on Block 16. “On the day scheduled for Wilbur’s arrival in a private car,” recalled newspaper man John Cahlan, “the word went out from the police department that all the houses on prostitution on North First Street [Block 16] would be closed and there would be no liquor sold in the community until Wilbur got out of the city.”

The Las Vegas Elks (see the flag in the center of the arch) were among the town’s boosters who in June, 1929 built the archway across Fremont Street at its intersection with Main Street. Today, the location of this sign is the western portal of the Fremont Street Experience, a five-block-long long pedestrian galleria, covered with 90-foot-high “digital canopy” projecting light shows and video displays. (UNLV Special Collections and Archives)

But word of the town’s raucous reputation had reached the straitlaced Interior secretary before he ever set foot in Las Vegas. The efforts of town fathers to dress up the city’s image and genuine identity for a day proved to be at least partly in vain. The next year, on September 17, 1930, Secretary Wilbur returned to Las Vegas, just about the time Sam Gay talked with Dan Mainwaring. He led the motorcade to Boulder Junction, a bleak spot in the desert six miles south of the Las Vegas railroad station, where, before a crowd of local dignitaries, boosters, politicians, railroad workers, and the just plain curious, he drove the first spike for the Union Pacific Railroad spur line that would connect Las Vegas to the not-yet-constructed Boulder City. However weak and awkward the Interior secretary’s hammer swing, as photos and observers documented, the metal-on-metal clang of Wilbur’s maul echoed across the country, ringing out a message of opportunity and hope from this most unlikely of American landscapes.

For Secretary Wilbur, a physician who had served as president of Stanford University, the new government-planned, government-administered Boulder City would serve not only to accommodate workers nearer the dam site. The new town would, he imagined, keep them comfortably distant from the lurid temptations offered in Las Vegas. “It is the intention of the government that the bootlegger or other law violator shall not interfere with the well-being of its workmen assigned to the task,” the Department of the Interior proclaimed. “Instead of a boisterous frontier town, it is hoped that here simple homes, gardens with fruit and flowers, schools and playgrounds will make this a wholesome American community.” Boulder City—both in Wilbur’s orderly imagination and during its early years under the absolute control of its administrator, Sim Ely (“just like a dictator,” by the recollection of one long-time Boulder City resident)—would represent the technocrats’ reproach to the freedom-loving Las Vegas that Sam Gay had policed, and Las Vegas businesses and residents had accepted, for a quarter of a century.

The days of Las Vegas’s relative isolation were fast coming to a close. In fact, despite the efforts of some federal officials to impose their own moral standards and aesthetic standards on southern Nevada communities, the state’s politicians and boosters viewed the sudden federal largesse as an opportunity to intensify support for the lucrative elements of Nevada’s traditional economy that other states righteously spurned.

In 1931, the state legislature legalized most forms of gambling, which had always carried on in Las Vegas in some form. That year Carson City lawmakers also shortened to six weeks Nevada’s already brief three-month residency requirement for divorce seekers. One of Sam’s—and my grandmother’s—siblings, Margaret, took advantage of this window of marriage-severing opportunity when she came to Las Vegas in late 1932, as executrix for Sam’s estate after his death that August. A substantial part of that estate included the modest apartment complex, “Gay Court,” Sam had built in the years just before his retirement. Margaret stayed there long enough to finally gain a divorce from a husband she had left behind in her (and Sam’s) native Prince Edward Island before emigrating to Massachusetts.

When Prohibition came to an end in 1933 after repeal of the 18th Amendment, key elements were in place for the growth of a transformed, shamelessly hedonistic regional economy, powered and supported by Hoover Dam, a substantial and continuing flow of federal financial support, and the “racketeers” and “crooks” Sam had encountered in his last days as sheriff, the vanguard of American organized crime syndicates who began appearing in Las Vegas in the 1930s and 1940s. Their tales are colorfully and intelligently depicted at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas.

* * *

In 1930, the last full year of Sam’s two-decade tenure as sheriff of Clark County, the population of his entire jurisdiction, comprising 7,892 square miles (compared to the 1,214 square miles of my home state, Rhode Island), consisted of 8,352 people. A decade later, in 1940, Clark County’s population hadn’t quite doubled, to 16,414.

The 2024 population of Clark County is estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau to be 2,350,611. Today, the elected Sheriff of Clark County heads the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, with which the Sheriff’s office merged in 1973. The department has almost 3,700 employees, including more than 2,900 police officers and 750 corrections officers. The current Governor of Nevada, Republican Joe Lombardo, is a former Sheriff of Clark County (2015-2023).

 

In our Sam Gay Pilgrimage t-shirts in front of a portrait of the late Sheriff of Clark County (just above Nan’s head) at the Mob Museum, downtown Las Vegas, April 2024.
The plaque beneath Sam Gay’s portrait (c. 1910s) in a Mob Museum exhibition about the Prohibition era reads: “‘First and final notice’ / In 1918, Clark County Sheriff Sam Gay proclaimed: ‘I am going to enforce the prohibition law to the letter. Mr. Bootlegger, this is your first and final notice.’ But after the state repealed its companion law, Gay turned his attention to other matters.”

For all the efforts by Secretary of the Interior Ray Wilbur and Boulder City administrator Sims Ely to stamp out what they saw as vice in the neighborhood of Boulder Dam, the spirit of Sam Gay’s, and Nevada’s, laissez-faire attitude to such activities, which became the basis for the local economy, lives on. The trail we traversed is connected by a steep but short side trail to the Hoover Dam Lodge and Casino, which stood on a bluff above us as we walked by. A modest establishment, at least by comparison to the gargantuan and garish casino resorts along the Las Vegas Strip, the hotel/casino has operated here since the late 1950s, before Congressional designation of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

A side trail leads up to the Hoover Dam Lodge and Casino, on Rt. 93, the highway between Hoover Dam and Boulder City. As we walked by this spot, an older gentlemen told us that there were bighorn sheep grazing along the steep side trail.

* * *

A view from near the beginning of the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail, looking back at the trailhead parking lot (top center) and Lake Mead National Recreation Area Visitor Center (top left), with River Mountains in the background.

The stark natural environment we walked through had been substantially manipulated since the arrival of the railroad in Las Vegas in 1905 and the creation of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead in the 1930s. As I read the Park Service informational signs describing the visible results of 1.5-billion years of geological activity, still ongoing, I couldn’t help considering that the existence of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, by contrast, had now spanned less than a century.

The unknown but worrisome future impacts of climate change loom, even as the level of the lake teeters at a threshold that could threaten the utility of the dam and the lake as the source of the water and electrical power on which the people of the region depend. Sam Gay didn’t see that coming. But neither did the engineers, politicians, and boosters who created along the Colorado River what eminent environmental historian Donald Worster, in his trenchant 1985 book Rivers of Empire, has described as an “innately anti-ecological,” anti-democratic, “hydraulic society,” the likes of which have led to the decline of other centralized civilizations. Writing almost forty years ago, Worster envisioned an alternative future for the arid American West, based on “a new relation to nature and a new technics.”

“A river, to be sure, is a means to economic production, but before that it is an entity unto itself, with its own processes, dynamics, and values,” he wrote. “In a sense it is a sacred being, something we have not created, and therefore worthy of our respect and understanding. To use a river without violating its intrinsic qualities will require much of us. It will require our learning to think like a river, our trying to become a river-adaptive people.”

* * *    

When Nan and I returned to the trailhead parking lot after our leisurely three-hour round-trip walk, the digital thermometer registered 97 degrees. We would have melted under similar temperatures on a summer day in Rhode Island. Here in springtime Nevada, the walk was literally–and deceptively–no sweat. We had only to worry about the threat of heat stroke and dehydration. 

Even a short, relatively easy trail can provide plenty to think about, especially a path that its official steward, the National Park Service, describes as “historic.” If you’re ever in this area, take this interesting hike. Take plenty of water. Take your time. ♦